Prostitution Laws

The basics of state prostitution laws and the history of the oldest profession.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated May 29, 2024

Prostitution laws prohibit anyone from providing or offering to provide sexual conduct in exchange for money or any other form of compensation. They also punish those who offer sex for money (that is, solicit) or who purchase any sexual service. These laws are not confined to people who directly participate in the unlawful sexual activity—they also penalize those who arrange or benefit financially from prostitution arrangements. Pandering, the practice of procuring a person to be used for prostitution, and pimping, the act of receiving any part of a prostitute's earnings, are typical, illegal ways in which third parties promote prostitution.

For more information on pandering and pimping, see Pimping and Pandering.

Prostitution: The History of the Oldest Profession

Informally dubbed the "world's oldest profession," prostitution is an American institution. Though the exchange of money for sexual acts is banned in all but one state—Nevada—prostitution was once entirely legal.

Colonial Times

With far more men than women in society, sexual commerce was ubiquitous in Colonial America. The "occupation" thrived from the 18th century into the 19th. During this time, there was no legal definition of prostitution in most states. The practice remained legal despite public condemnation. Brothels and their patrons were prominent along the coasts and eventually spread to the country's rural areas.

Local Regulations Fail; States Step Up

Local governments tried—mostly unsuccessfully—to regulate prostitution. Determining that absolute prevention was impossible, the country turned to the practice of confining prostitution to certain geographic areas known as "redlight districts." These sectors were technically illegal in many states, but governments often tolerated them. Eventually, at the turn of the 19th century, the states began to enact criminal laws prohibiting prostitution, while Congress did the same. By 1971, every state, other than Nevada, had outlawed sex-for-sale.

How State Laws Typically Approach Prostitution

In some states, prostitution is considered a form of disorderly conduct. In most, the crime includes offering or agreeing to, or engaging in, a sexual act in exchange for money or other compensation. Statutes typically describe the contemplated sexual activity vaguely. They use terms such as "lewd acts," but invariably describe intimate physical contact of some form. They require that the defendant intend to receive compensation—either directly or through a third party—in exchange for that contact.

In many states, the government must prove only that the prostitute offered or agreed to engage in sexual conduct for compensation, regardless of whether they intended to follow through on that offer or agreement. The only requirement is that the offer or agreement not be in jest. In some states, though, the prosecution must prove that the defendant specifically intended to engage in the sexual act in exchange for money. In those states, a prostitution violation requires some act showing that the defendant intended to follow through on the offer or agreement to partake in sexual activity. An example of such an act is touching the patron's crotch after offering intercourse.

In all states where prostitution is illegal, the intentions of the would-be client are irrelevant—the alleged prostitute can be convicted even if that client doesn't actually intend to participate in any sexual contact. Were the law otherwise, police sting operations to uncover and prosecute illegal sexual activity, which are vital to enforcing laws against prostitution, would be pointless.

Crimes Related to Prostitution

In addition to pimping and pandering, there are several prostitution-related crimes that involve third parties. State laws relating to the sex trade typically prohibit certain categories of behavior that foster prostitution. These include:

  • keeping or residing in a house of prostitution
  • leasing a house for prostitution
  • procuring a person to travel for purposes of prostitution
  • bringing a person to a place kept for prostitution
  • sending a minor to or permitting a minor to enter a house of prostitution, and
  • taking a person against their will for prostitution.

In addition, federal law prohibits transporting a person across state lines with the intent that they engage in prostitution or any other criminal sexual activity.

How Prostitution Is Punished

Prostitution itself, whether the prostitute or customer is involved, is typically punished as a misdemeanor. Most acts that promote prostitution, however, such as pimping and pandering, are treated as felonies. Where underage prostitutes are involved, the penalties are considerably stiffer, and it is no defense for the pimp or panderer that they believed that the minor was of age.

Prostitution Laws by State

Choose your state from the list below to find information about your state's laws regarding prostitution.

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